Category Archives: port

Domingos Soares Franco brings J.M. da Fonseca wines to Chicago’s avec

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Domingos Soares Franco, the tall, handsome, silver-haired winemaker of Jose Maria da Fonseca wines, came to Chicago recently to share three of his rich, elegant reds and two of his exquisitely multi-layered Moscatel aperitif/dessert wines with a beautifully paired selection of foods at avec, 615 W. Randolph. Attendees enjoyed a stellar experience of some of the many wonderful wines that Portugal has to offer.

On the eve of its 40th vintage in 2020, the seasoned winemaker  shared some tidbits about his 200-years-in-the-business family’s processes and philosophies:

  • Jose Maria da Fonseca makes one million cases each year – 60% reds, 25% whites, 5% Moscatel, and the rest roses. They make a blend every two years. They carefully follow the same formula each year in order to keep the style consistent. And then, as with fine Port wines, the winemaker must decide which blends will be declared vintages. Soares has been in charge of this critical part of the vineyard’s approach for several decades. And now he is encouraging the people with whom he works – some for 10, 30, even 50 years – to take this responsibility. He said they finally agreed to try – and he’s proud to say they made the last blend perfectly.
  • In regard to climate change, he said it is inevitable – but that there is no guarantee whether in the end we will cool down and warm up.  His advice to all winemakers is, if the climate heats up, don’t change the vines. Change the clones. He and his team, for example, use 12 clones of a single grape – and these clones give the best chance for the winemaker to control conditions.
    Soares is not a fan of “blockbuster” type wines – the kind many Americans are trained to find most desirable. He said his team will make wines that cater to that market segment, but he prefers more subtlety, for example, by using less and less oak in his vinification.
  • Moscatel wines can remain in the bottle indefinitely because you can just put the cork back in after it’s opened. Because of the way it’s made, the wine cannot oxidate any further, and it cannot become vinegar because of the high alcohol content. Domingos said that though it’s legal to use caramel to adjust color and sweetness in Moscatel wines, some do so because some consumers tend to prefer a darker color. Your secret to knowing whether caramel has been used to enhance color is to hold your glass over a piece of white paper and look for a green rim on the wine. That is a sign of the genuine wine without color enhancement.

Alambre Moscatel de Setúbal 20-year-old. 100% Moscatel de Satubal grapes grown on the Setubal Peninsula. Silky mouthfeel, layered aromas of orange peel, citrus, apricots, nuts, dried figs, and almonds, leading to a whiff of cigar box. Complex and rich. Alc 18.4%. SRP ~$70.

Alambre Moscatel de Setubal 40-year-old. 100% Moscatel de Setubal grapes grown on the Setubal Peninsula. Like all fortified wines, brandy is added at precisely the right moment to halt fermentation at its ideal stage. Then this wine is aged in used oak. SRP ~$150.

Jose de Sousa 2017. Made with Grand Noir (98%), tinicaderia (22%, and Arogones (akin to Tempranillo) 20%. Soares ferments a small portion of this wine in clay amphora before resting it for 9 months in French and American oak casks. Akc 14.5%. SRP ~$20

Periquita Reserva 2017. Made from Castelo 56%, Touriga Nacional 22%, and – Soares’s favorite – Touriga Francesa 22%. Fermented 7 days with full skin contact, then aged 8 months in new and used French and American oak barrels. SRP ~$15.

Domini Plus 2015. Made from 96% Touriga Francesca and 4% Touriga Nacional. Fermented in the traditional manner with full skin contact, then rested for 10 months in new French oak casks. SRP ~$45.

Established in 1834, family-owned José Maria da Fonseca (J.M. da Fonseca) is one of Portugal’s best-known and most historic wine producers, with vineyard holdings in the country’s most important wine regions, including the Douro, Vinho Verde, Setúbal and Alentejo.J.M. da Fonseca has been owned and managed by the Soares Franco family for seven generations. Father and son team Antonio Soares Franco, Sr. and Antonio Maria S. Franco, Jr. stand at the helm, together with chief winemaker and vice president Domingos Soares Franco (brother and uncle, respectively, to Antonio Sr. and Antonio Jr.). Domingos holds the distinction of being the first Portuguese national to graduate in fermentation sciences from California’s U.C. Davis. He couples a modern perspective with a respect for Portuguese tradition in all his winemaking initiatives. Domingos will celebrate a personal milestone with the year 2020, which will mark his 40th harvest.

The J.M. da Fonseca winery, located in Azeitão on the Setúbal Peninsula just south of Lisbon, welcomes visitors year-round. Guests can tour the original 19th century estate and cellars, and enjoy a wine tasting and a stroll through the tranquil gardens which surround the estate. No visit is complete without a tour of the impressive Fernandes Soares Franco winery, established in 1999 and inaugurated in 2001 by the President of the Republic. Although this state-of-the-art winery is entirely computerized, it maintains time-honored methods of winemaking dating back to the early 1900s.

And, by the way, the food at avec was worthy of note for its creativity. Small plates came in a wide variety that featured vegetables in a big way. First, wood-oven roasted beets with spring peas, quinoa tabbouleh and berbere pecans. Next, charred carrots with black harissa, whipped feta and crisp wild rice dukkah. Then chicken liver crostini with rhubarb mostarda and mint.

Next courses included salty, warm, crispy focaccia with taleggio cheese, ricotta, truffle oil and fresh herbs – num! – along with a gorgeous dish of wood-fired chicken with hummus, zhoug, green garbanzo and seed cracker fattoush.  And then came a small platter of delicious and unusual cow cheeses – St. Agur, Omorro, and Vento d’Estate. Desserts were 5-star for sure: vanilla bean cheese cake with candied pistachio and strawberry, plus a sweet mezze – “spread” – of caramel cashew squares, cinnamon sugar shortbread, and cacao nib biscotti, all delightful.

Executive Chef Paul Kahan’s team served up one delicious dish after another – all absolutely perfect accompaniments to the lovely wines. The quality of the food ingredients and the masterful presentation showed off the kitchen’s originality and its superior powers of execution as well as its ability to highlight the wines. Unquestionably a 5-star experience.

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8 wines and spirits to make Dad – and you – smile

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Not everybody consumers alcoholic beverages, but those who do may enjoy receiving something unusual on special occasions. Below are ideas for 8 beverages to consider giving for Father’s Day. Of course, if you don’t have a dad or a father figure to celebrate with, you can always consider giving them to yourself. Your friends will enjoy sharing!
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Wines to consider

Luxurious Italian red wines. Brunello di Montalcino, in Tuscany, is the home of the some of the finest, most robust and complex red wines Italy has to offer, all made with 100% Sangiovese grapes. Almost any wine from here will make a meal special or an evening with a friend or two memorable. Be aware that the “Rosso” expressions of this wine are the younger versions. They are often extremely high quality yet generally cost a great deal less – up to 50% less – than the more mature wines. Here are a few we sampled at this year’s US visit by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello de Montalcino, held in the gracious spaces of The Drake Hotel:
Brunello di Montalcino - home of fabulous rich Tuscany reds. Credit: Wikipedia
Brunello di Montalcino – home of fabulous rich Tuscany reds. Credit: Wikipedia
  • Col d’Orcia Brunello di Montalcino 2013. Made from clones of Sangiovese grapes grown on this 100% organic estate, this wine is generous and fruity as a result of a very dry, hot summer after a cold wet spring. Well balanced.  Alc. 14.5%. Affordable for a Brunello at ~$50.
  • Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli Brunello di Montalcino 2013. A family farm run by Concetta and her husband, who lovingly tended the soil, living solely on its produce and bartering eggs, goat’s milk and fruit in exchange for what they could not produce. This wine is fresh with high acidity, deep, rich color, dark berry flavors, a hint of lemon rind, and a beautiful balance. Alc. 15%.
  • Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino 2012. The vines this year were stressed with a very dry, cool spring followed by a huge heat wave in August, when there was no rain and no water reserves. But the winemakers really made hay with this harvest. This wine has great depth, while it’s fruity and floral and has a broad mid-palette.
  • One of the Rosso versions we really liked: Il Paradiso di Frassina Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2016 (organic). Only 8000 bottles produced, this is a younger version of the 2012 Riserva and the DOCG 2013. May be hard to find in the U.S. Only ~$20 rather than the $48 and $78 prices of the more mature versions.
Port wine. Cockburn’s has been a hallowed name in the business of making fine port wines for 200 years and counting. To celebrate this two-century history of innovative vineyard practices, they’re labeling their bottles with a commemorative seal so they look extra cool. Consider Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port, a rich, lush, fruit-forward deep red port with aromas of red cherry and hints of plum and strawberry. On the palate it’s lightly sweet, well-rounded with luscious red berry flavors. Pair it with nutty or chocolate desserts and with strong cheeses. Good for six weeks after opening. 20% alc. $18.
 
Spirits to consider
  • Tinkerman’s Gin is the new signature line of gins made by A. Smith Bowman Distillery. They’re already known for Whisky Magazine’s 2016 and 2017 World’s Best Bourbons, and now they’re introducing Tinkerman’s in three expressions: Citrus Supreme, Sweet Spice and Curiously Bright & Complex. The new expressions are the result of Master Distiller Brian Prewitt’s “tinkering” with combinations of juniper and various varieties of herbs, flowers, spices, fruits and vegetables. Each one brings a special touch to your cocktails and yet they’re smooth enough to drink on their own. 46% alc (92 proof). $29.99
  • Till Vodka came visiting Chicago this spring at the dark, almost speakeasy-styled cave of the city’s newest champagne and caviar restaurant, Marchesa. Till Vodka is born in the heartland – The Midwest we Chicagoans know and love. It’s that place where folks take hard work and craftsmanship seriously. Made with the finest local ingredients, Till is an exceptional vodka with a crisp taste and smooth finish, The distillers craft Till with one thing in mind: to make you proud of your heritage. Use their store locator to find Chicago retail locations (hint: it’s sold at many Binny’s stores). .
  • GEORGE REMUS® Bourbon introduced several expressions of its “King of the Bootleggers” bourbon at that same Marchesa event. Bourbon is a favorite of many guys, and this line of spirits is sure to have a type that will appeal to most any bourbon lover. Memorable rye-infused bourbons that dad – or you – may want to come back to again and again.
  • The Dark, made by Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky. This delicious spirit matures in first-fill, sherry-seasoned European oak casks. The end result is a nicely balanced whisky loaded with flavors of dried fruits, cinnamon, toasted almonds, cedar wood, fruitcake and light peat smoke. Out in a limited release of only 4500 bottle in the US, look for it at your favorite retailer. SRP ~$300. @HighlandParkUS

    The Dark - just one of many to get for Dad - or treat yourself to
    The Dark – Scotch with a Viking Soul
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The Symington family of fine port wines

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Charles Symington in the vineyard
Charles Symington in the vineyard

Interestingly, port wines often do not state vintage years. Instead, when a wine is particularly good one year, it is “declared” a vintage after it’s been bottled. Because differences in weather are unpredictable every year, only great years can command a declaration. It is always an exercise in self-restraint for port winemakers to decide which years deserve to be declared.

Rupert Symington checking the grapes
Rupert Symington checking the grapes

Some of the biggest names in port from the Douro Valley are all owned by the Symington Family Estates. Cousins Rupert and Charles Symington came to Chicago recently to introduce their exciting 2015 vintages and showcase a few of their older premium offerings.

 They brought four of their renowned name brands and presented the 2015 vintage along with carefully selected  older vintages of the same brand. It was a fascinating horizontal and vertical tasting exercise that highlighted the differences between young port wines and mature. It very clearly showed how aging in the bottle changes and deepens the complexity and flavor in a fine ruby port.
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Cockburn's vintage port 2015 label
Cockburn’s vintage port 2015 label

Our favorite among all was the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, its bicentenary vintage. The Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s from the  company that had been operating it since the family sold it in the 1950s – to the detriment, they believed, of the fine brand. “We wanted to bring back the spirit of Cockburn’s,” said Rupert. So they organized a tasting of some of the very oldest Cockburn’s vintages – from 1912, 1920 and so on. They knew, then, what their goal would be to engineer the re-birth of the Cockburn excellence. Their 2015 has lush aromas and flavors of maraschino and black cherry that eventually turn into Kirsch-like flavors. Rupert described it as “tropical jungle.” The 2011 vintage port is a perfect example of this super-refined structure and power of the Cockburn port profile: dark, brooding, powerful.

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The Symingtons offered a couple of observations about grapes: Touriga Franca is like Merlot – softer, forgiving, aromatic. Cabernet is more like Touriga Nacional – dark and needs softening.
Port goes through three phases: 1) young, fresh and full of fruit flavor; 2) after 10 to 15 years the port starts to mature and begins to get that raisiny flavor; and 3) 20-30 years when the port loses some of its intense, deep color and becomes much more subtle as it approaches serious maturity.
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Vintage port is made with extraordinary grapes. Then they add a colorless brandy with a 20% level of alcohol. The brandy gradually gets absorbed into the port and basically disappears, and then the wines darken up. A simple fact: it takes 7 liters of wine to make one liter of brandy– which is how they do it in Spain.
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Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2015 was lovely. Made from tiny grapes, it has been declared a vintage. Shows very concentrated fruit and a pure expression on the nose. Slight tropical notes, Only 345 cases made.
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Six Grapes is a Grahams brand of port that uses the same grapes as Dow’s port. When Dow’s declares a vintage, the next best barrels go into Six Grapes bottles. When there is no declaration, the best grapes of all go into the Six Grapes brand. You get the finest quality at a much lower price with Graham’s Six Grapes.
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Their Quinta do Vesuvio winery does not declare – it bottles. The wines are velvety and sweeter with lots of fruit aromas. Sweetness makes it smoother on the palate. All Vesuvio vintages are trodden by foot. producers are so consistently exceptional that they simply call it a vintage almost every year.
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Dow’s rounded out the selection of pairs – themselves very nice, slightly drier wines. Quinta del Senhora da Ribeira has had almost ideal climate for growing port grapes. All their wines are velvety. Floral tones from the Touriga Franca, resin and spicy flavors from the Nacional along with some tar and smoke
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